DTI asks for help on ICANN reform

In June the governments of the world will gather to present their views on how ICANN - possibly the most criticised group on the Internet - should be reformed. The DTI is taking submissions

The Department of Trade and Industry is asking for public input to help shape its response to a proposal by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to restructure itself.

ICANN launched the initative in February when it published a document called the Lynn Plan, named after the organisation's president, Stuart Lynn.

In his paper, Lynn admitted that ICANN in its present structure was not working, and called for deep and meaningful structural reform. He said the concept of a purely private sector body, based on consensus and consent, to manage the domain name system had been shown to be impractical. Instead he considered ICANN's unstable structure should be replaced with an effective public-private partnership rooted in the private sector but with the active backing and participation of national governments.

Many influential figures in the Internet community remain wary of ICANN's motives, warning that with the restructure it is seeking more power and less accountability.

ICANN is to decide on its reform plan at its next board meeting, due to take place from 24 to 28 June in Romania. In the weeks before this gathering, the ICANN Government Advisory Committee will meet discuss the reform process and to feed its views to ICANN. The British government is among 35 other governments and intergovernmental organisations that are represented on the GAC; although the US Department of Commerce still effectively runs ICANN it is, says ICANN, gradually diminishing its role.

One of the most vocal critics of ICANN is Miami University professor of law Michael Froomkin. In an open letter posted in response to Lynn's proposal, Professor Froomkin warned that one of the most notable features of the plan is that it would "systematically remove every single external check on ICANN, be it technical (root servers), political (ccTLD autonomy), internal (the Independent Review Panel that Dr Lynn has had a year to implement and yet not managed to get done), legal (the Dept of Commerce veto), judicial (no pesky members who might claim they have rights), electoral, or financial."

The plan, said Froomkin, also discards as unworkable the idea that ICANN should be consensus-based. "Rather, once governments have pressured the major actors to sign ICANN's 'pay and obey' contracts, the new, muscular, ICANN is to be a coercive top-down regulator. The new ICANN will impose the rules it thinks best in its own discretion, yet be self-perpetuating and without any accountability to external forces save that provided by having five of fifteen directors named, not by the Internet community, but by world governments through some regional mechanism to be announced."

ICANN has even received criticism from within its own ranks for what is seen by as a lack of transparency. ICANN at-large director Karl Auerbach, who is one of the few elected directors on the organisation's board, earlier this week posted critical comments on his Web site of a recent ICANN meeting. In his posting, Aurebach criticised ICANN for not giving enough notice of agenda items. "Although the agenda was posted about a week before the meeting," wrote Auerbach, "the actual items being proposed were not made visible to me (and presumably not to the other board members) until between 30 and 12 hours prior to the meeting. This did not allow adequate time for research and preparation." Auerbach said the lack of information made it difficult for him to cast an informed vote on agenda items.

What is clear is that ICANN does need to be reformed. Dr Willie Black, chairman of the .uk registry Nominet, said any restructure should leave ICANN as a 'thin' organisation, carrying out basic clerical functions. "It should be an organisation that carries out minimal technical functions," said Black. "All it needs to do is to keep the table of country code TLDs, and the few generic TLDs."

On no account, said Black, should ICANN hold any sway over the country code registries, of which Nominet is one. "If the government of Spain wants a restrictive registry, then that should be their choice," said Black. "It should be the stakeholders in the country who create policies -- we don't want to give ICANN the power to say how we should run things here in the UK. Its role should really be just to maintain the table. It needs to be very hands-off, serving the community of TLDs. But it should not be setting itself up as judge and jury of the Internet, which is how it comes across right now."

The UK government could have a significant effect on the review of ICANN, said Black. "If governments across Europe are able to come up with a similar view it will be influential because they form a very strong trading block compared to the US. I think they will be listened to."

The DTI's consultation document can be found here.

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